“Hip Hop is America. Its only real crime is being so much so. It boils ‘mainstream standards and practices down to their essences, then turns up the flame. Violence, materialism, misogyny, homophobia, racialized agony, adolescent views of sex and sexuality . . . . These are the common, bankable, all-American obsessions. They’re the underbelly items that have always defined this country’s real, daily-life culture. What that means is the top-of-the-line hip-hop and its true artists (be they ‘mainstream’ or ‘underground’) soar on the same terms that America’s real artists – and everyday folk – have always soared: by being un-American, by flying in the face of the fucked up values and ideals that are wired and corroded in this country’s genetic code even as no-lip lip-service is given to notions of equality, justice, and fairness” (Ernest Hardy)
“Some emcees battle for glory/ But to kick a dope rhyme and wake up ya people’s another story.” (KRS-One)
“If our elders give up on Hip Hop then they’ve given up on us. If we give up on Hip Hop, then we’ve given up on ourselves” (Yvone Bynoe)
“We need a voice like our music – one that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips into something new, provocative, and powerful. And one whose occasional hypocrisy, contradictions and triteness guarantee us at least a few trips to the terror-dome, forcing us to finally confront what we’d all rather hide from” (Joan Morgan)
On Monday, January 16, 2006, Bill O’Reilly interviewed conservative author John McWhorter and Clarence Jones, a former speechwriter for Martin Luther King, Jr. Using the King Holiday as an opportunity to denounce “Black leaders,” O’Reilly stated that the two most pressing issues facing the Black community, which in his estimation were being ignored by Black leaders, were out-of-wedlock births and rap (hip-hop) culture (O’Reilly, 2006). Beyond reflecting the nature of a contemporary racial discourse that erases racism, instead demonizing Black women and youth as source of problems, his comments, which were endorsed by both his guests, embody the very narrow vision of hip-hop and the ease with which American social ills are readily displaced onto Black bodies. His comments, while nothing new given his longstanding war on hip-hop as a threat to American children, seemed especially powerful in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing myopic assault on hip-hop bodies, aesthetics, and cultures.
While cultural commentators and politicians lament the influences of hip-hop and the rapper NAS declares the death of hip-hop, the music and culture of hip-hop seem to be flourishing. The popularity of rap music is evident on the charts, on MTV (and BET), and on the radio; moreover, the visibility of rap icons within celebrity culture, along with the aesthetic, linguistic, and cultural influences of hip-hop globally further reveals the significant place of this cultural form, movement, ethos, and generation within the contemporary. Recognizing its popularity, we seek to explore the broader meaning of hip-hop, focusing on the contradictions that define hip-hop as: oppositional and mainstream; American and un-American; capitalistic and anti-capitalistic; global and local; libratory and oppressive; artistic and commodifiable; black and anti-black; celebrated and demonized; challenging and reifying; a voice of the poor and a voice of the American/American materialism; dead and alive. As one moves beyond U.S. borders, the place of hip-hop is further evident, functioning as a cross-cultural/global language of both decolonization struggles and global capitalism. Here lies a key feature of hip-hop and a key theme for this course: the contradictions that define hip-hop: oppositional and mainstream; American and un-American; capitalistic and anti-capitalistic; global and local; libratory and oppressive; artistic and commodifiable; black and anti-black; celebrated and demonized; challenging and reifying; a voice of the poor and a voice of the American/American materialism; dead and alive.
In 2011, Washington State University instituted a series of changes to its general education requirements. Included within these changes was the implementation of a Humanities requirement. This new requires emphasizes the importance of humanistic endeavors and analysis, highlighting the importance of “interpretation, and reflection rather than the direct creative expression of the arts.” Challenging students to “engage…in the history of ideas” and ‘Big Questions,’” to reflect on “significant cultural traditions” and to “solve problems, conceptualize an issue, or convey a concept, formal or theoretical” Humanities course “engage centrally with questions of meaning and purpose, which serve as bridges of relevance between past, present and future.” Specifically, Humanities course must:
- Introduce students to basic theories of interpretation or theoretical models in the humanities.
- Introduce students to key texts, monuments, artifacts or episodes within humanistic traditions or disciplines.
- Help students develop the ability to construct their own artistic, literary, philosophical, religious, linguistic, or historical interpretations according to the standards of a humanistic discipline.
Accepting the challenge of critically engaging hip-hop culture not only in terms of lyrical context, but the larger narrative and ideological concepts embedded in both the musical, artistic and cultural productions, this class fulfills the core mission of the humanities. Emphasizing “Critical and Creative Thinking”, with its focus on the representations and narratives offered by a myriad of artists and critically analyzing the production and consumption of hip-hop, this course brings the humanities into the twenty-first century. In the UCORE handbook, HUM course are described as classes that “emphasize analysis, interpretation, and reflection rather than the direct creative expression of the arts.” Pushing students to reflect on and interpret the meaning within and beyond the song, this class represents the best of humanities in the twenty first century: cultural studies that is both part of a larger intellectual tradition and that is connected to the daily lives our students. Likewise, with its emphasis on “Information Literacy” and “Communication” this course offers the students the opportunity to develop research skills as well as media literacy.
This class, thus, accepts the task of reflecting on the racial, cultural, social, political, economic, and global influences of hip-hop; of understanding and navigating these contradictions. It challenges the mythologies that reduce hip-hop to rap; that reduce rap to gangsta music; that reduce gangsta music to black artists, and in doing so we will examine, discuss, and learn about hip-hop as a movement, as a generation, as a style, as a voice, as a language, and as a pulse, moving beyond the music, beyond the mainstream, beyond the dominant discourse, and most important beyond the lies, distortion, and demonization.